(New York Jewish Week) — Crafted of bronze and gold-leaf plaster, and topped by a bejeweled crown, the astonishing 26-foot-tall ark of the Forest Hills Jewish Center fills its cavernous sanctuary with an imposing presence.
When Temma Kingsley joined the congregation as a newlywed in 1965, she was taken aback by its style.
“I thought it was really quite fancy, overdone,” she recalled recently, comparing it to the traditional wooden ark in the modest Philadelphia synagogue where she grew up. “But I’ve since learned what it’s all about, and I’ve become attached to it.”
The ark, which houses the synagogue’s Torah scrolls, is the work of artist Arthur Szyk (1894-1951), a Polish-born artist who rose to fame in the United States with vivid, technicolor drawings on the covers of influential magazines, in the pages of high-profile newspapers and in fine galleries and museums around the world. When the synagogue dedicated its minimalist post-war building on Queens Boulevard in 1949, Szyk’s opulently designed ark stood out as entirely different.
Now, with the impending sale of the Forest Hills Jewish Center building, Kingsley is concerned about the ark’s future. So too are current synagogue leaders, as well as art historians and museum curators, who are scurrying to find it a new home. Meanwhile, the ark’s fate remains in question.
The Conservative synagogue announced last year it was selling its building and would look for a new home in the same area in Queens. In August, an investment partnership led by Joseph Yushuvayev and Uri Mermelstein of Top Rock Holdings announced it was in contract to buy the building and develop the site.
Fully acknowledging the value and importance of the Szyk ark, the congregation is seeking to find it a new home. At least one art dealer has expressed interest in acquiring the ark, but this route has been rejected as it would not come with any guarantee of where it might eventually land.
“What if the buyer decides to disassemble the ark and use its beautiful bronze doors as the entrance to their home?” Deborah Gregor, executive director of the Forest Hills Jewish Center, asked rhetorically, her voice tightening.
Taking into consideration this theoretical scenario, the board has agreed to prioritize keeping the ark intact to honor its legacy. Several museums have been contacted. Thus far none have come forward.
Simona Di Nepi, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Curator of Judaica at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, traveled to Forest Hills last month to see the ark and “fell in love.”
“I see it as a tour de force of Jewish art,” she said — a unique and spectacular “show-stopper.”
On her recommendation, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts explored the possibility of acquiring it, but the height ultimately presented logistical challenges that could not be overcome. Di Nepi has now turned her attention to several large synagogues with the hopes of finding one that might adopt it.
“I can’t bear the thought of what will happen if it does not find a home,” she said.
Born in Poland, trained in Paris and influenced by the brief time he spent at Bezalel Art School in British Mandate Palestine, Szyk was known for his vivid Jewish art, biting political cartoons and his portraits of American heroes and European figureheads. In 1941, The Times Literary Supplement wrote that his illuminated Passover haggadah was “worthy to be placed among the most beautiful books that the hand of man has produced.” Reprinted many times in the decades since, it remains a staple in Jewish homes today.
While Szyk’s oeuvre is described by critics as “exquisite,” “masterful” and “marvels of technical skill,” the artist did not view his own creations as ends unto themselves. Instead, he used his work to influence politics and world opinion. Irvin Ungar, editor of the 2017 study “Arthur Szyk: Soldier in Art,” wrote that Szyk employed pen and paintbrush as tools to wage war against the Nazis, attack racism, promote Zionism and preserve freedom.
His work caught the attention of two leading rabbis of his day: Abba Hillel Silver in Cleveland and Ben Zion Bokser in Queens. Both led growing congregations that would reach well over 1,000 family members. Separately, the two commissioned Szyk to create significant objects for their respective synagogues.
Szyk’s stained glass “Warrior Windows” were dedicated in Cleveland’s Reform Temple Tifereth Israel on the last day of Hanukkah in 1947. Commissioned to honor congregants who fought in World War II, the 15 windows include the names of fallen soldiers and showcase the biblical figures Judah Maccabee, Samson and Gideon, resplendent in sumptuous battle dress.
In a letter to Silver, Szyk explained that he would have ordinarily charged $15,000 for the project (the equivalent of $200,000 today). But because Szyk aligned so closely with the rabbi’s ideological mission — Silver was a leading proponent of Zionism — he viewed the job as “a personal favor,” and agreed to a much lower sum of $4,500.
Bokser, a social justice activist whose edition of the Jewish prayer book was a staple of Conservative synagogues for decades, was also drawn to Szyk’s bold, innovative style for the sanctuary of his congregation’s sleek new building on Queens Boulevard. Art historian and Cleveland State University Distinguished Professor Samantha Baskind calls it “sui generis”: Like Szyk’s illuminated manuscripts, the ark’s design packs in a dizzying array of abstract ornaments woven together with Jewish emblems. Scrolls, flowers, acorns and leaves are interspersed with holiday symbols, lions of Judah and representations of the Israelite tribes.
Its baroque form is reminiscent of the arks of Eastern European synagogues that were destroyed in the war. But Szyk was neither mournful nor nostalgic. Forward looking and hopeful, his ark doors are flanked by birds that can be read as either eagles or doves. With their wings spread wide, the figures stretch toward the biblical and Talmudic passages that border the work, invoking God’s judgment and heralding freedom.
Ungar assesses the ark as “an American and a Jewish icon” and a “culmination of [Szyk’s] prayers” as expressed through his art. Gregor refers to it as the artist’s “ark de triomph,” quite literally: “It is Szyk’s own statement of triumph, celebratory and grand,” she said.
Ironically, its grandeur is precisely the source of its uncertain future.
When the Jewish Center’s current building was dedicated in 1949 in the presence of 5,000 guests, its scale was meant to accommodate a growing membership. Its main sanctuary held 1,200 seats, and its religious school would eventually accommodate some 900 students. Now the hulking space has become too large and costly for its 300-400 member families to maintain. The congregation has not yet announced relocation plans. But their hope for the future is an intimate space with a cozy aesthetic, where the monumental scale of the Szyk ark will likely not fit in.
Art historian Samantha Baskind has been preoccupied with the issue. “A logical solution would be to unite it with Szyk’s Warrior Windows” in Cleveland’s Temple Tifereth Israel,” she said. “Bringing the works into conversation with each other in the same sacred space is conceptually brilliant and would honor the memory of Rabbi Silver at the same time that it beautifies the synagogue.”
Whatever the future holds for the ark, some Forest Hills Jewish Center members are finding it hard to say goodbye. Kingsley recalled the central role the synagogue has played in her life since she moved to Forest Hills 57 years ago. For her, the ark is not just about its aesthetic details, or the artist who created it.
“That was the ark Rabbi Bokser commissioned,” she said wistfully. It holds his spirit, too.
Alanna E. Cooper serves as the Abba Hillel Silver Chair in Jewish Studies at Case Western Reserve University. Her book “Disposing of the Sacred” is forthcoming with Penn State University Press.
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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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